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3 Trends Driving Big Data Breakthroughs: A CIO's View

GE Water & Power CIO says data blending, scalable storage and processing, and a maturing Internet of things are shaping big data progress.

GE Water & Power has been monitoring its industrial turbines and predicting maintenance and part-replacement needs for nearly 10 years. But three changes in recent years have really enabled this $28 billion unit of GE to up its game, according to CIO Jim Fowler.

The first trend has been the emergence of critical masses of data paired with an ability to blend big data sets, said Fowler in a keynote at last week's InformationWeek Conference in Las Vegas. "Not only do we now have 100 million hours of operating-data and maintenance-and-part-swap-data across 1,700 turbines, but we can now marry that with external data such as weather information and process against it in one place," Fowler said.

[Want more on GE's use of big data? Listen to our radio chat: The Internet of Important Things: GE Power & Water CIO Jim Fowler.]

By marrying external data with the terabyte of data per day spinning off of each of its sensor-equipped turbines, Fowler said GE is helping customers eke out a seemingly small 1% improvement in output that will translate to $2 to $5 million in savings per turbine, per year. That will net $66 billion in savings over the next 15 years across all 1,700-plus turbines that GE customers have in operation.

The second trend changing the game in the use of big data is new platforms such as Hadoop and NoSQL databases, Fowler said. "We've seen the cartel of database vendors broken up, and some great new entrants give us new capabilities that we've never had before at a cost that we've never seen," he said. Fowler specifically mentioned MongoDB, Pivotal, and open-source data-integration vendor Talend as vendors that the company is either working with or watching. In 2013, GE made a $105 million investment in cloud-computing, app-development, database, analytics, and Hadoop-distribution vendor Pivotal.

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The third trend unlocking big data, said Fowler, is the emergence of the "industrial Internet" -- GE's term for the Internet of things -- and big data platforms. The challenge, he said, is creating open platforms for ingesting and sharing high-scale data, and building applications while also ensuring security. To that end, he said GE is working with AT&T and others on standards for communications and security protocols.

"The turbine control systems that we built 30 years ago never envisioned the network connectivity that we have today," Fowler explained. "We're building a control room of the future that is certificate based, with end-to-end encryption, making sure we're authenticating person-to-machine but also machine-to-machine communications."

The danger is the threat of hackers taking big industrial equipment or a power plant offline. That's one reason operational systems such as power plants aren't connected directly to the Internet. Rather, data used for performance tuning is sent out on dedicated, secure pipes.

One next wave in power plant tuning will be blending historical data and information such as weather predictions to better anticipate demand. During this year's harsh winter weather, for example, several power plants in the Northeast weren't prepared for demand spikes and ended up going offline.

"If we can predict demand from the grid and match it with plant operations, we can prevent those outages," he said.

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